From San Francisco Down the Central California Coast
Today, our general plan was to explore the vistas and attractions along the Central California coast. Of course, we would be driving on the infamous Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). Our daughters Angie and Dani had never seen this part of The Golden State, and we were very excited to show them around.
After enjoying our final continental breakfast at Bay Landing Hotel, we packed our stuff and loaded it into the car. Before we headed towards the coast, we spent a few minutes looking at the airplanes coming in for landing on the nearby runway. Since we all enjoy airplanes, it was particularly exciting to watch them glide above the water over the Bay before touching down.
First Glimpse of the Coastline
When we felt satisfied with the amount of landings we had seen, we got in the car and hit the road. Since the San Francisco Airport is near the south end of the city, we didn’t have to fight too much heavy traffic before finally getting to the PCH. Then the first views of the Pacific Ocean started to emerge. Even though there was some typical morning coastal fog, the visibility was quite good, and the panoramas were spectacular.
As we continued to follow Highway 1, the PCH, we passed through the small, sleepy town of Half Moon Bay. The road then brought us again right near the ocean where we continued to enjoy more stunning landscapes.
Our first stop along the California coast was a little further down, near the town of Pescadero, CA. At this point, the PCH followed the coastline closely near breathtaking cliff drop offs. Hubby pulled off to the side of the road so we could properly take in all of this beauty.
Right near the highway, the land was covered by an interesting looking plant, which I came to find out later was called iceplant. It has thick leaves which have three sides, shaped like small triangular prisms of a sort. It surely was an unusual sight, but not for the California coast. The iceplants hugged large portions of it, and grew in abundance here.
After inspecting closely this peculiar plant, we headed towards the cliff edge in order to discover some new panoramas. We overlooked a small, serene beach down below which was semi-enclosed by the rocks on which we were standing. There, a couple of people and a flock of birds were enjoying this glorious morning in California.
Pigeon Point Lighthouse
Ten or so minutes later, we were ready to continue our drive. While the scenery was spectacular, we were starting to get a little chilly. Having lived in Texas for a while, we were not particularly well equipped for the cool Pacific breeze. Slightly shivering, we all got back in the car, and continued our adventure along the California coast.
Our next stop was the Pigeon Point Lighthouse State Park and Hostel. At this particular spot, the coastal fog was receding, so we got to enjoy plenty of blue sky and sunshine. Just like near Pescadero, the area here was also covered in iceplants.
We followed the dirt trail from the parking lot, and stopped to take some photos. The short path eventually took us to the tip of the cliff on which the lighthouse was standing. The view from this point was vast and inspiring. It felt like the entire Pacific Ocean was before our eyes with its deep blue waters spanning as far as the eye can see. At the same time, powerful waves were crashing on nearby rocks, producing large splashes of ocean water.
It was on one of the rocks near the shore that we spotted several harbor seals. They were lying on their sides trying to take a nap but the splashing waves kept disturbing their peace. Every time the water reached them, they lifted their heads, and readjusted slightly in attempt to find a less intrusive spot. Even though, the rock on which they were lying was quite far, we could clearly see their light gray bodies and seal outlines.
In Need of a Zoom Lens
I knew that I absolutely had to get a good picture of these adorable creatures. So I decided to go back to the car and get my large Nikon camera with its 18-300 mm lens, and return to take some photos. Unfortunately, with the advancement with the new iPhones, I find myself getting lazier when it comes to carrying my bulky heavy camera everywhere. It is a choice I often regret later because no matter how good the latest iPhone cameras are, they can’t quite yet replace the quality of a solid Nikkor lens. Especially, when it comes to optical zoom, the iPhone cameras fail miserably.
I grabbed my trusty Nikon camera from the car, and jogged back to the tip of the cliff where we could see the seals. I zoomed in, and there they were!
The sweet creatures were light gray with dark spots and beautiful black eyes. They were still lying around on the rock trying to snooze among the splashing ocean waves. They looked so adorably plump, it reminded me right away why my kids lovingly call them “cute sea sausages.”
After I observed the seals for a little while longer, and snapped a satisfactory amount of photos, I went back to the car. A minute later we were back on the PCH, and heading towards new adventures along the gorgeous central California coast.
As we kept on driving, we started to realize that our bellies were feeling pretty empty. It was nearly lunchtime, and the kids reminded us of that on more than one occasion. Luckily, the city of Santa Cruz was not too far, so we decided to look for a place to eat there.
We made our way into the city and parked as close as possible near Beach Street, where all the action was. It was a perfectly hot California summer day, without a puff of a cloud in the sky. It also happened to be a Sunday, so the beachfront was packed with people enjoying the day and hanging out. The atmosphere somehow made me think of the classic 80’s movie “Summer School” with Mark Harmon and Kirstie Alley. It had the same fun, relaxing, chill feel to it!
Lunch at the Picnic Basket
After hubby and I consulted with Yelp, we quickly agreed on where to get a bite. There was a small deli place right on Beach Street, called the Picnic Basket. We dropped a few coins in the parking meter, and walked to the restaurant. Even though it seemed crowded, we placed our order, and managed to find a table. Everyone seemed pleased with the food, whether it was a nice salad, or a deli sandwich. The Picnic Basket offered a variety of fresh options.
Karaoke and a California Sand Castle
After lunch, we decided to walk around a bit, and check out the area. Naturally, the first place we wanted to visit was the beach, right across the street. As we stepped on the beach boardwalk, we found ourselves near the Ideal Bar & Grill where confident karaoke singers were performing their own renditions of songs by Christina Aguilera and Madonna. While the singing was questionable at best, it only contributed to the the fun and goofy tone of this California summer Sunday.
While hubby and I were trying to comprehend the sounds coming from the karaoke singers, the kids called us excitedly. They had just spotted a young guy on the beach who had built quite an impressive sand castle. He had even spelled the word California on top of it with sand. At that moment, he was asking kids for their names in order to write them on the sides of the castle. Of course, all the little ones were quite excited.
Leisure Time for Everyone
After we watched the guy with the castle for a few more minutes, we decided to move on. The kids wanted to go dip their feet in the water, I wanted to go for a walk on the nearby Municipal Wharf, and hubby just wanted to find some shade. He was starting to feel a little worried that his light, freckly skin would soon turn a dark shade of pink. After a minute of contemplating how to make everyone happy, we found the perfect solution. Hubby found some shade under the wharf, from where he watched the kids running in and out of the water. Meanwhile, I took a walk on the Wharf where I snapped some photos of this perfect California beach scene.
Ice Cream Strategy
After my short walk, I waved at hubby and we agreed it was time to go. Now, our challenge was getting the kids to leave the beach. So we applied the ice cream strategy. As soon as they heard us say we would go get some ice cream, they couldn’t leave fast enough. Of course, we had to keep our promise and deliver as soon as possible. Luckily, not too far along Beach Street, there was a small ice cream shop where the kids happily selected their scoops.
After we all filled up yet again, we were ready to hit the road. There were more adventures awaiting along the stunning Central California coast!
Back Along the Central California Coast
We got back on the PCH, and slowly made our way around the beautiful Monterey Bay. There was certainly a lot to see here, but we had a specific plan and couldn’t take too many extra stops. We drove near the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium which is always at the top of everyone’s list of things to do in the area. Then, we passed the famous Pebble Beach and 17 Mile Drive, which takes you around a very ritzy area, including the golf course. Further down the PCH, we drove by Carmel, another fancy California town, and then came Point Lobos State Reserve, which we also passed. All of these were worthwhile attractions but our plan was to drive still further down, and get to Bixby Bridge. I had never really seen it clear of fog in the past, so I was hoping this time I would get lucky.
Bixby Creek Bridge or Not
As we drove on, the beautiful vistas of the coast continued to amaze us.
Then, far in a distance I saw the outline of a bridge wedged between the cliffs, and I had to ask hubby to stop so I could take a picture. I was quite sure this was Bixby Creek Bridge because it looked just like I had seen it in pictures.
We pulled over near an area known as Rocky Point, which features also a restaurant with the same name, Rocky Point Restaurant. One could only imagine how fabulous the food in this place would taste when served with these coastal California views.
I took my pictures, and excitedly jumped back in the car. Finally, we were going to see Bixby Bridge in the clear! To our surprise, when we got to it, and pulled over, we found out it was actually Rocky Creek Bridge, not Bixby. Nevertheless, it was an amazing structure, and the short stop we took to enjoy it was totally worth it.
Bixby Creek Bridge at Last
We jumped back in the car and continued our drive in search of Bixby Creek Bridge. About 5 minutes later, we were there. The first sign that we had arrived was the number of cars that were there. Everyone wanted to see it, and take a photo or perhaps a selfie with this marvel of engineering. Bixby Bridge was indeed spectacular, as it spanned between two cliffs, creating a glorious passage to the other side.
After we admired the bridge and ocean vistas for a bit longer, we hopped back in the car, and turned around. Since we had reached the ultimate goal for the day, Bixby Bridge, we decided to go back. It was getting close to 6:00 pm, and there was still plenty of sunshine. Therefore, we could squeeze in one more activity before finishing off the day.
Point Lobos State Reserve
We traced our way back up the PCH, enjoying once again the breathtaking views of the amazing central California coast. It wasn’t too long before we pulled up to the entrance of Point Lobos State Reserve, which we had passed earlier on the way down. We paid the entrance fee, and asked the ranger if we could possibly get some Junior Ranger booklets for the kids. It turns out state managed lands, just like federal lands, also give out Junior Ranger badges. The kids were very excited that they could become California state Junior Rangers!
We pulled up past the entrance station, and followed the road inside the reserve to the first parking area. There were hardly any people there, likely because it was late in the day, and the park was only open until 7:00 pm. This didn’t leave us with much time to explore, but we hoped an hour would at least give us a good taste.
Cypress Grove Trail
We quickly jumped out of the car, and consulted the map that was displayed nearby. Since the Cypress Grove Trail was the closest one, we decided to start following it. According to the map, this was a 1-mile loop which circled out near the shore, and came back around to the parking area.
Beware of the Poison Oak
We began walking, and almost immediately noticed a sign that warned us about Poison Oak, which grows in abundance here. The sign read: “The shiny leaves of this shrub grow in groups of three on smooth stems. They are green until fall when they turn various shades of red and orange. Do not touch the stems or leaves, for the oil of this plant is toxic to humans and may cause a severe rash or blisters. Sometimes Poison Oak will grow as a vine in the trees.”
After we made sure our kids assimilated the contents of this sign, we continued following the trail.
Monterey Cypress and Sea Lions
The path took us through a beautiful tunnel of tangled Monterey Cypress trees. From reading some of the materials we had picked up at the Ranger station earlier, I learned that these particular trees were native to the central California coast. Even in this region, they were found only in two areas. One was Cypress Point near Pebble Beach, and the other was Point Lobos State Reserve. These trees were truly unique in that their branches were quite tortuous. Their thin leaves were deep green, but often there was peppery red lichen mixed in, giving a truly artistic look to these unique trees.
As we continued making our way around the loop, we came to a more open area where ocean views and rocks dominated the landscape. We could hear in the distance the squeaky barking of sea lions. We couldn’t see them because they were standing on a rock that was quite far away from the shore, however, we could clearly hear their unique voices along with the sounds of crashing ocean waves.
Further along the trail, we returned back to the Cypress forest where we enjoyed more tangled tree branches and a unique blend of colors. The path looped around and took us back to where we started. By that time, it was about 6:40 pm, and we had 20 more minutes to explore before the park closed.
Lion Point to Sand Hill Trail
There was another loop trail nearby, which according to the map, was merely a half a mile long. This was the Lion Point to Sand Hill Trail, which sounded like the perfect, short runaround before closing time.
This short loop was much more open than Cypress Grove trail. It was basically an easy, flat path which took us to the edge of a cliff with an amazing view of the ocean. Once again, we could hear the barking of sea lions far off in the distance, but we couldn’t see them.
As we were enjoying the views, the smells, and sounds of Point Lobos, we heard a park ranger drive by, summoning all visitors to make their way out of the park as the time was almost 7:00 pm.
We walked back to the car, and satisfied with this magnificent experience, headed out of the park. Perhaps, we could come back again the following day for the kids’ Junior Ranger badges, and more coastal adventures.
Dinner in Carmel by the Sea
As the sun finally set above the central California coastline, we felt it was time to think about dinner. Hubby suggested that we eat in Carmel by the Sea, the fancy, ritzy town we had passed earlier during the day. We didn’t need any convincing as it truly sounded like a great idea. We had visited Carmel on a different trip, and we knew it was a neat town with good food.
Speaking of Carmel by the Sea, it would be appropriate to mention some interesting facts about this town. I admit, while unique, not all of these oddities are to my liking. For example, none of the houses in Carmel have address numbers, and there are no sidewalks or streetlights except for Ocean Avenue in downtown. Apparently, at some point someone decided that providing walking spaces or lights for pedestrians would spoil the charm of the city.
Another interesting fact about Carmel is that shoes with more than two-inch heels are not allowed! (Hubby complained bitterly about this, and subsequently substituted his stiletto pumps for sneakers!) Apparently, the city doesn’t want to deal with lawsuits and complaints that someone twisted or broke an ankle while trying to navigate the uneven pavement. Last but certainly not least, it is worth mentioning that Carmel by the Sea once had Clint Eastwood as its mayor. Rumor has it he spent much of his time in office speaking to empty chairs.
Despite all of the quirks mentioned above, Carmel by the Sea is a neat place to visit, as it offers a variety of specialty stores and tasty eateries.
Cozy Italian Dinner
Our culinary choice for the evening was a small, charming Italian restaurant called Il Tegamino. It was the perfect end to our California coastal adventure for the day. The atmosphere was relaxing and cozy, and the staff very accommodating. The chef was more than happy to prepare Spaghetti with Alfredo Sauce for our two kiddos even though it was not on the menu.
Salinas, CA for the Night
After our lovely dinner at Il Tegamino, we got back in the car and headed towards our hotel for the evening. We had a reservation at the rather underwhelming Laurel Inn Motel in Salinas, yet, it didn’t really matter because we were just there to get some sleep before heading back out on new adventures the following day!
Join us again as we explore Hearst Castle State Park, a beautiful marvel of architecture with a fascinating story.
…And if you feel like spending a little more time along Highway 1, check out Pacific Coast Highway 1 Road Trip Itinerary by Traveling Mrs.
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